Alan Lawrence had been the principal timpanist for the Cedar Rapids Symphony for 11 years before his instruments — heavy kettledrums in varying sizes — were upgraded to a pristine, precise new set.
On the morning of June 12, 2008, the timpani were in the basement of the Paramount Theatre in downtown Cedar Rapids, which would soon fill with floodwater.
Lawrence was at home in his pajamas when his wife, Anita Tucker, who worked in a legal office across the street from the Paramount, called him around 8:45 a.m., warning him of the forecast.
Soon, Lawrence was in his 2003 Volkswagen Jetta speeding toward downtown.
“It would have made me sick to lose this particular set because I’d kind of bonded with them,” said Lawrence, 62, noting that timpani are very precisely-made instruments.
“I can hum a pitch around these drums, and you hear that pitch singing out of it,” he said. “On our old set, it didn’t work that way. It’s like comparing a Mercedes to a Jetta. I liked my Jetta, but ...”
By the time Lawrence arrived at the Paramount and gained access to the basement, officials warned him he had 15 minutes to move the timpani and “whatever else you can.”
A timpani can weigh as much as 200 pounds, and the only way up and out of the theater’s sublevel was in a 1928 passenger elevator.
Lawrence and a few volunteers helped him roll the drums into the lift. With space for only one person, Lawrence would fold the ornate, metal doors closed and ride up alone, hoping the electricity stayed on.
Sliding in the final, biggest timpani was metal scraping on metal, Lawrence said, as volunteers pressed the elevator doors as wide as they could.
“It was a close shave,” he said.
With the timpani saved, Lawrence went back downstairs to get a xylophone, glockenspiel, tam-tam, bass drum and a celesta.
He was ready to carry out a box of lights when he checked beneath the chairs and spotted a contrabassoon.
The $25,000 instrument was the last one he rescued before he was told to evacuate.
The instruments were stored on a landing about 9 1/2 feet above the theater’s ground floor. And, still, it almost wasn’t high enough.
At its crest, the river filled the historic theater with 8 1/2 feet of water.
All of the instruments pulled from the Paramount’s basement can be heard today at Orchestra Iowa concerts.
Lawrence last played his timpani on stage at the Paramount June 2 — 10 days before the anniversary of his rescue work — for a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3.
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